Renewables, nuclear not compatible in cutting CO2 — study

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 7, 2020

When nations lean on nuclear plants as a source of electricity, they’re less likely to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — but more likely to “crowd out” renewables that could help decarbonize, according to a new study.

Published in Nature Energy this week by energy and technology policy professors at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, the study drew from 25 years of emissions and power production data from 123 countries, ending in 2014.

The research found that globally, greater adoption of nuclear power wasn’t associated with lower emissions — although it was for wealthier countries. In nations with a lower gross domestic product, emissions actually tended to rise along with increased nuclear generation.

Renewables, on the other hand, were broadly associated with CO2 reductions. The researchers considered hydropower as a renewable in addition to wind and solar.

Those three renewable technologies, they found, didn’t mix well with nuclear. Regulatory structures, grid management and employment practices were incompatible, since nuclear projects provided large-scale baseload power at a higher cost and required longer lead times to develop. Financing one power source tended to take away resources from the other, according to the study. And members of the public typically didn’t favor both, due to the “military connections and security repercussions displayed by nuclear power but not renewables.”

Countries planning to ramp up nuclear power are “risking suppression of greater climate benefits” from renewables, wrote the study’s authors.

The risk that renewables might crowd out nuclear was “less important,” they added, since renewable strategies were “evidently more effective at carbon emissions mitigation.”

Those conclusions appear to offer a rebuke to clean energy plans on the books in several U.S. states, where new subsidies for existing nuclear plants have been paired with wind and solar build-outs.

Several major utilities have also staked net-zero emissions targets on the emergence of new, smaller-scale reactor technologies.

Andy Stirling, a study co-author and a professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, cast doubt on those technologies’ viability. “The advantages claimed for [those technologies] have yet to be proven — and follow a long history of undelivered promises in this sector,” he wrote in an email.

“Many things are possible. But a radical quantum leap in the efficacy of this technology, after half a century, is not very plausible,” he added.

Flawed research?

Nuclear proponents attacked the study on social media and in interviews.

Alex Trembath, deputy director at the Breakthrough Institute, pointed out that nuclear has “played well” with wind, solar and hydropower in countries like Sweden. About 80% of electricity comes from hydro and nuclear, and 12% from wind, according to government figures.

Alex Gilbert, a project manager at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, argued in a Twitter post that poorer countries have often built out hydropower as a means of improving access to electricity. Those countries tend to have less emissions from industry, while nuclear production has occurred mostly in highly industrialized countries.

Jackie Kempfer, a senior climate and energy policy adviser at the centrist think tank Third Way, concurred.

“Countries with nuclear power are typically high-income and more industrialized. Because of that, they have higher CO2 emissions,” she said.

Hydropower, she added, often suffered from the same long lead times as nuclear and implied a similar centralization of the grid. It also accounted for more new renewable generation over the period examined than wind and solar combined, complicating the study’s conclusions about the incompatibility of small- and large-scale resources.

“I’m shocked … that this study made it through peer review,” she said.